Dig This: Workplace Gardens Taking Root

Employees get out from behind their desks to strategize about work while they're weeding.

While community gardens flourish in cities across the country, the trend is also spreading through workplaces, where it helps nurture camaraderie, cultivate wellness, hone new skills and provide a way to assist those in need.

Insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota is one company where a workplace garden has taken root. “It’s become a part of the fabric of our culture,” says Susan Schuster, senior community affairs consultant.

Three IT department employees planted the seeds for the idea of workplace gardening in 2007, and the company agreed to dig up 1,600 square feet of lawn to grow vegetables to help feed needy people in the community. Since then the project has flourished and the garden now covers 3,200 square feet at the company’s headquarters in Eagan, Minnesota.

About 50 employees help tend the garden, which produces vegetables that are donated to the Eagan Resource Center food shelf, which aims to eliminate hunger in the community. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota produces about 1,200 pounds of food each year for the effort.

Because of the community’s cultural diversity, a wide range of crops—from kale to kohlrabi, okra to onions, and potatoes to peas—is produced.

Most employees work on the garden during their breaks and lunch hours, and before or after work. But the company also gives each employee 20 paid hours off of work each year to volunteer for his or her projects of choice.

The impact of the garden spills over into the work day. Employees may strategize about work while they’re weeding, Schuster says, and relationships evolve that span departmental or functional lines.

Employees also can learn new skills through serving on the garden committee leadership team or becoming a spokesperson for the garden. “Different volunteers really become leaders by participating in the garden,” Schuster says.

At the same time, lines between management and staff are blurred as everyone works together in the garden, she says. “Whatever your role is at work goes away.”

Workplace gardening also fosters health and wellness benefits, says Sara Trunzo, food and farm projects coordinator at Unity College in Unity, Maine, who has worked on various school and community garden projects. Part of it stems from simply getting outside.

“We all spend too much time behind computer screens,” Trunzo says. Instead of staying cramped up behind a desk, being in the garden allows employees to use different muscles when they bend to weed or pick vegetables.

It also helps refresh employees mentally, Trunzo says, and taking that break “really can boost creativity.”

The time spent working with others in the garden can also help forge bonds between employees as they do things like reminisce about their grandmother gardening or canning vegetables. “It gives us a topic to talk about that’s not work related,” she says.

For Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, having the garden also fits in with its overall mission. “We’re really dedicated to the health of the community,” Schuster says.

The company helped create a network of community giving gardens that provides produce to food pantries in the area, with 15 other corporations taking part. The companies hold garden summits twice a year and share best practices.

One of companies involved is Land O’Lakes Inc., an agricultural cooperative primarily focused on dairy products and headquartered in Arden Hills, Minnesota. The company started a half-acre community garden in 2009, says Lydia Botham, executive director of the Land O’Lakes Foundation.

About 50 employees are involved in the garden project at corporate headquarters, growing vegetables that are easy to harvest, such as tomatoes and squash. Those are donated to the food pantry at Keystone Community Services. Herbs also are grown in the garden, and they’re sold to Land O’Lakes employees. The proceeds are donated to the food pantry.

“Our people get a lot of satisfaction from giving back,” Botham says.

Susan Ladika is a writer based in Tampa, Florida. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.